Leave No Trace
immediately drops you into a place that feels familiar, yet also slightly strange. Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) are camping in the woods amidst dense trees and scraggly underbrush. It quickly becomes apparent that the two are survivalists of some kind, not recreational campers, and they are living in a public park near Portland, Oregon. It also becomes clear that all of this is by choice; Will navigates his world with a single-minded industriousness that suggests that if he wanted to, he could find steady work and an apartment. But he can’t, or won’t, conform to a “normal” lifestyle.
The audience is given enough time to understand the pair’s routine of cultivating plants, bartering with the local homeless population, and otherwise carefully avoiding detection, that we adjust to their nontraditional way of living; we begin to see the “real world” as they see it. When they are later forced to move, and the lush greens of the forest are replaced by the right angles and oatmeal-colored wallpaper and carpeting of a small, drab house, we feel as out of place as they do. Through films such as 2004’s and 2010’s
director Debra Granik has studied American poverty of varying degrees, showing the struggles of the poor through the eyes of women who must bear the emotional labor of handling men who are broken — often through forces beyond their control. In Leave No Trace, a film she co-wrote with Anne Rosellini (based on Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment),
Will is a veteran who suffers severely from PTSD. He understand intuitively how to protect and provide for his daughter, yet he can’t give her the comfortable routine and social interactions she craves. Though he ensures her survival, she is the one who cares for him. This life is not her choice, but she loyally and lovingly goes along with him.
While Granik deeply involves viewers in the father-daughter journey, the performances elevate their relationship. McKenzie, an actress from New Zealand with relatively few credits, easily slips between a hardened vagrant and a yearning teenager. Foster, notable as a bank robber in
(2016), conveys great emotion through small gestures and a downcast gaze that seems perpetually aimed at the middle distance. Their acting prevents the film from feeling bleak; at its heart is a touching father-daughter tale that may be unconventional but is no less warm for it.
The overall feel of the movie calls to mind Sean Penn’s and Kelly Reichardt’s in that the characters flit about the fringes of society with a disconcerting restlessness — almost as if they are ghosts haunting cities, towns, and the framework of ordinary daily lives. Often with movies such as these, audiences are shown, or made to assume, that the characters don’t find happy endings. Granik subverts those expectations, offering a bittersweet resolution with implications that linger long after the screen goes dark. — Robert Ker